Published by

Olivier Meier
Principal at Mercer
Helping Companies Go Global
Data and Technology to Support Talent Mobility

Organizations are now preparing for a new normal.

The aftermath of the crisis will have long-lasting effects on mobility management.

The question is not so much if we will have less mobility as what new forms of mobility and new practices will emerge from this crisis.

Even if mobility professionals are still looking for a sense of direction, some patterns are emerging.

 globalmobility  humanresources  futureofwork  talentmanagement  hr


We usually end each year with bittersweet comments about repetitive promises of changes and complaints about the increasing volatility and uncertainty. However, 2020 has been a year like no other, and past considerations about the “VUCA world” (a trite acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) seem derisible in comparison of the scale of the challenges we are now facing.

Flexibility, employee experience and wellbeing, technology… we have been talking about these topics for years. There is, however, a huge difference between musing about new ideas or gradually rolling out new policies and being forced to implement drastic measures at short notice to ensure business continuity and employee safety. The urgency has forced HR teams and mobility professionals in particular to move out of their comfort zone, be more agile, and work more creatively with the other functions.

Organizations are now preparing for a new normal. The aftermath of the crisis will have long-lasting effects on mobility management. The question is not so much if we will have less mobility as what new forms of mobility and new practices will emerge from this crisis. Even if mobility professionals are still looking for a sense of direction, some patterns are emerging.


  • Managing traditional assignments
  • Package flexibility
  • Segmentation by type of assignments
  • Removing barriers to mobility
  • Mobility management tools
  • Assignee diversity
  • Mobility function focused on relocation success


  • Integrating new forms of mobility (including virtual assignments) in a resilient distributed workforce model
  • Broader policy and work setup flexibility
  • Personalization / understanding needs of employee groups
  • Employee experience and wellbeing
  • Digital working and integrated platforms
  • Mobile workforce inclusion issues / avoiding a new digital gap
  • Mobility function focused on delivering business value

Managing global distributed workforces: more than just relocation

Mobility professionals have long debated the need to be strategic and an extension of their purviews. The crisis forced a new reality: the old rigid definition and boundaries are irrelevant during the pandemic. Mobility teams got involved in all kind of discussions about locally hired foreigners, stranded business travelers, unplanned cross border moves and moving jobs to people to ensure business continuity.

Talent mobility is increasingly about managing a distributed global workforce on an on-going basis — in other words, a workforce that is dispersed geographically, could be working from home or from an office, and will have different contractual statuses (home- or host-based, permanent move, or temporary assignment). For top management, assignee relocation is just one piece in a bigger global talent brokering puzzle and not an end in itself.

This evolution requires a change of mindset and operating model: instead of trying to fit assignees into predefined boxes corresponding to the purview of mobility teams, the objective is to manage a diverse workforce in a fluid and integrated way.

The virtually unstoppable rise of international remote working

Virtual assignments have moved within less than a year from being unpractical oddities to become one of the top priorities for mobility teams. Remote working has been the norm during the crisis. Expectations are huge among employees and top management seeks to leverage its benefits further. There is still a lot of confusion and unclear definitions of the vague concept of “virtual assignments” and “international remote working”. In any case, the question of virtual assignments is part of the wider remote working picture and cannot be discussed in isolation from the company’s general practices regarding home offices and remote working for all employees.

Some companies will simply try to manage the return to normal by tracking and auditing existing unplanned cross-border moves – already a complex exercise. Others will go one-step further and complement their domestic working from home policy with guidelines for cross-border moves. Finally, some companies will attempt to implement virtual assignments as a real alternative to traditional expatriate assignments.

A number mobility professionals have been cynical about the actual viability of virtual assignments over the long-term but the debate about these new forms of assignments is not a yes-no question. The objective is to have a structured approach and clarify what is possible and what limitations should be in place. A comprehensive feasibility analysis of virtual assignments includes factors such as the nature of the job, the work and technology setup, compliance, cost considerations, the company culture (readiness for remote working), intercultural issues, as well as a thorough assessment of the value for the employees and the company. It also requires new forms of flexibility.

Flexibility revisited

Flexibility has been dominating HR headlines for several years. Companies have scrambled to introduce more flexibility for both good and bad reasons. We have witnessed attempts to use it to simplify processes, address the legitimate concerns of specific employee groups, and overcome barriers to mobility in some locations. The drive for flexibility has also been based on the alleged expectations of new generations and an exaggerated hope of reducing costs and workload.

Flexibility can enhance wellbeing when applied selectively to allow for a better work-life balance or to let specific employee groups choose what they need. Poorly implemented it could lead to additional stress for employees who don‘t necessarily have all the information and support to make educated choices.

What flexible policies and benefits are truly viable and effective? During the crisis, the primacy of duty of care over excessive flexibility has been reasserted: policies item should not be made flexible if they are essential for the wellbeing of employees. Some companies has found that flexible policies have prepared them to deal conceptually and practically with urgent repatriations and unexpected mobility scenarios. Others, however, have found some aspects of their flexible policies inapplicable and inappropriate in the context of urgency.

Following the Covid-19 crisis, the debate has also shifted from just setting benefits to the adoption of a broader of definition of flexibility. The new flexibility is about the overall work setup. The debate about working from home and work arrangement has spilled into global mobility as the expectation of employees have rapidly evolved. Flexibility is an attempt to reconcile business resilience and employee experience. It is also a recognition that not all employees faces the same hurdles and that assignee support needs to be more personalized.

From segmentation to personalization: employee experience first

Segmenting assignments by duration or purpose (strategic, developmental…) has been a common approach to manage mobility for the past twenty years. Yet, that approach had its limits as it did not always take into account the needs of different employees groups.

You can have the best policies and still fail to connect with the aspirations of your employees. “Know your customers” is the motto of all businesses and HR teams managing internationally mobility employees cannot escape that rule. It is not always possible to address the needs of every individual in the organization but companies can follow a structured and empathic approach to understand the subjective experience of specific groups of employees.

Organizations increasingly use the concept of “persona” – a typical individual representing a segment of the employee population – and design thinking to improved employee experience. Each persona has a specific background, unique requirements and expectations that might need to be addressed in the mobility policy. Defining personas representing the most important groups in the mobile workforce is a first step to create a better mobility experience for all employees and ensure their wellbeing.

Wellbeing at the forefront

Retention is not driven purely by pay. Organizations need to put more emphasis on the needs of the whole person (e.g. community, purpose, job satisfaction) and take into account the need of the family.

The crisis has put the spotlight on employee health issues but the concept of wellbeing goes beyond healthcare considerations and is not just a priority during emergencies. The concept of employee wellbeing also encompasses mental health, social wellbeing and financial wellbeing. Wellbeing is an important component of the employee value proposition.

The distributed global workforce model requires new forms of social interaction, inclusion, and employee support. The question of productivity of the remote workforce will partly depend on the companies’ ability to provide to foster employee wellbeing.

Digitalization: from buzz to reality

In less than a year, digitalization has moved from being a buzzword to a lifeline for both the business and employees. Many people initially reluctant to use technology have started to adopt new tools in their daily lives to work but also interact with each other, shop, and get thing done. This has created more resilience and efficiencies for businesses but also created new employee expectations that cannot be easily dismissed. On the business side, technology is no longer a nice to have – it has become a vital resource for teams trying to collaborate, exchange data, track assignees, and assess compliance. A lack of integrated tools and connected platforms is not only a source of inefficiency; it prevents HR teams from working effectively in times of emergency.

The dangers of an uneven recovery: inequalities rising?

The economy did not manage a fast recovery (a “V-shaped” one.) Instead, we are experiencing a “K-shaped” recovery: in the new normal, multiple types of inequalities affecting industries, companies and employees are increasing. It is difficult to talk about the future of mobility as such when different companies and teams are having to different experiences. There will be clear winners and losers.

This question of inequality in the face of recovery is affecting employees as much as companies . Are we reversing the progress in gender parity and diversity? The crisis is disproportionately affecting industries and jobs where women or some minorities represent a significant part of the workforce. Automation offers opportunities but also represent a challenge for employees groups over-represented in entry-level jobs.

New forms of mobility including shorter assignments and moving jobs to people could open up new opportunities for employees who would normally not be able to go on international assignments. These new forms of mobility could help companies meet the cost saving, agility, and diversity imperatives. However, these benefits will not materialize without suitable training and support for the employees concerned and for management. In the digital world not all groups are equal or are least not all groups are equally prepared.

Organizations need to avoid creating a digital gaps and fighting inequality will have to be at the forefront of the recovery efforts even if it is not always on top of the mind of HR and management during a crisis.

It’s all about delivering value: the smiling curve of mobility

The crisis will bring back the question of costs to the front. However, before trying to cut cost, managers should ask themselves if the problem is really about cost or the limited perceived value of the assignments. The difficulty in quantifying the value of assignments when trying to justify highly visible direct costs is one of the greatest challenges for mobility managers.

Before sending employees on assignments, a thorough preliminary discussion needs to take place to understand what the company is trying to achieve and how the benefit of the assignment for the business will be measured. This is easier said than done, and in practice, too many assignments are initiated without clearly defined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in place.

Beyond the cost of the assignments themselves, the value of global mobility and the mobility functions will come under scrutiny. HR teams and mobility professionals should reflect on how to position themselves to avoid being sidelined. How can we analyze the value tasks performed by the mobility function?

The “smiling curve” can help: it is used to determine how added-value is generated throughout a product or service delivery cycle. Manufacturing and high tech companies have found that the most added-value is created at the beginning of the process (product design) and during the marketing/go-to-market phase. On the contrary, the production of the product itself generates little added-value and is often off-shored or automatized.

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The smiling curve helps companies and business units position themselves where the highest value is generated. Mobility teams can apply the same approach to understand and communicate about the value generated by talent mobility processes.

The capacity of mobility team to demonstrate their added value and their ability to adapt to the requirements of the new normal will condition their success in 2021. It is not the end of mobility but the pandemic might have marked the beginning of a new era in mobility management.